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Edging Toward Equity
When it comes to promoting diversity, let’s keep talking—and doing.
A few months ago, I came across a provocative article in the New York Times Magazine called “Has Diversity Lost Its Meaning?” The author opined that the term “diversity”—through overuse and insincere usage—has become an empty signifier for many people:
“It has become both euphemism and cliché, a convenient shorthand that gestures at inclusivity and representation without actually taking them seriously. When the word is proudly invoked in a corporate context, it acquires a certain sheen. … It’s almost as if cheerfully and frequently uttering the word ‘diversity’ is the equivalent of doing the work of actually making it a reality.“
The article got me thinking, because as leaders of an academic health center, we use that word a lot—from our Strategic Plan to our statement of core values to myriad corporate communications. I agree: We need to be mindful that the term does not get diluted. The way to do that is not by editing it from our speech but by backing it up with meaningful action. That means outlining specific tactics for achieving those goals and for holding ourselves accountable.
For example, at Johns Hopkins Medicine, we recently created and filled two new executive roles: chief diversity officer, James Page, and vice president for health care equity, Lisa Cooper. We have set aside a fund for retaining underrepresented minority faculty. We now require formal search committees for every leadership position in our health system and that committee members must complete training in unconscious bias. We have vastly expanded our STEM internship programs for youths from low socioeconomic backgrounds and launched a new initiative to hire locally in Baltimore City. Every day we are walking the walk.
That said, diversity goes beyond just checking off boxes when it comes to who we recruit and enroll. We must draw on our differences if we want to execute on our mission to improve health.
What do I mean by that? We all know that social and cultural factors play a major role in health and illness. At Johns Hopkins, we drill this into trainees with the Genes to Society curriculum. It is important to develop cultural competencies in care providers to help them respect patients’ values and habits. We are working to build a diverse workforce capable of relating to our patients and of speaking their language, both literally and figuratively. This is not just about fairness—diversity in medicine has measurable benefits.
For instance, studies show that students trained at diverse schools are more comfortable treating patients from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds. When the physician is the same race as the patient, patients report higher levels of trust and satisfaction. The visits even last longer—by 2.2 minutes, on average. When patients enter our hospitals, they want to see staff and physicians who resemble them.
All of this matters if we are going to start chipping away at the troubling health disparities we see in this region, particularly in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death and the impassioned protests that followed. Maryland has the nation’s highest median income, yet it ranks 33rd among U.S. states for geographic health disparities. White babies born in Baltimore City have a life expectancy that’s six years longer than their African-American counterparts.
In a city with excellent health care infrastructure and two premier academic medical institutions, far too many members of our community don’t get the health care they need. It’s our responsibility to change that. We need to partner with community organizations and actively build relationships with those who may not trust the medical establishment. A crucial next step will be examining our own practices to ensure we are providing the same level of care for all who enter our hospitals.
We recently appointed Robert Higgins as our surgeon-in-chief—the first African-American ever to hold that position at Johns Hopkins. Did his race factor into our decision to recruit him? Absolutely not—his qualifications are second to none. The real question is: Would he have chosen Johns Hopkins if he felt that all our talk about diversity and equity was just lip service? I believe the answer is no. And it would have been our loss.